Productive and Unproductive Labor

glevy at glevy at
Fri Aug 4 11:47:56 MDT 1995

I will only briefly, and therefore somewhat assertively, attempt to
answer Matt's questions.  I invite others to answer his questions in
greater depth.

  First, though, I have
> always had a problem with the concept "unproductive labor."  Isn't labor
> *by definition* productive activity?

Labor, in Marx's understanding, is not productive by definition. What do
workers produce?  Some workers produce goods and services, other workers
produce commodities and surplus value. The labor of those workers who
produce surplus value is viewed as productive labor.

> Why are the goods consumed by the state not commodities?  Even in a
> monopsony, there is a market.
The state can *consume* commodities which are produced by productive
labor who are employed by capitalist firms.  State employees are viewed
as unproductive in the sense that they do not produce surplus value but
instead receive wages from state revenues.  In other words, surplus value
is produced by productive laborers who work for capitalists.  Then, the
state receives revenues through taxation from wages, interest, and profit
from the private market sector of the economy. The state then pays state
employees wages from these revenues.

> I can see where this is important, but isn't the distinction between
> productive and unproductive labor more of a political distinction, rather
> than an economic one?  I mean:  who can be organized as an industrial
> proletariat versus who's labor ties them ideologically to the ruling
> class (e.g., bankers).

I disagree with the above. The distinction concerns who is productive of
surplus value within a capitalist economy, rather than political
organization or class consciousness.
> One last question:  what is the analytical relation between productive
> and unproductive labor, and mental and manual labor (my less informed
> opinion is that the latter distinction has more to tell us, as it is
> based in actual labor processes and in the social division of labor).
This is a good question which I won't attempt to answer completely at
this time.  The distinction between productive and unproductive labor
is different from the distinction between mental and manual labor.  For
instance, workers employed on a assembly line at a state-owned factory
are unproductive whereas teachers employed at a private university are
productive. The distinction between mental and manual labor is real
enough (although hard to classify when we discuss some concrete
instances), but it is at a different level of abstraction from the study
of productive and unproductive labor.


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